NBA players' unprecedented protest forces league into delicate diplomacy

To protest the police shooting In Wisconsin of Jacob Blake, NBA players on Wednesday refused to take part in all three scheduled playoff games. It's an unprecedented move, one that will force the league to employ delicate diplomacy to get the season restarted.

Players refused to take the floor in all three playoff games Wednesday

An empty court and bench are shown with no signage following the scheduled start time in Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series. The NBA players made their strongest statement yet against racial injustice Wednesday when the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t take the floor for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via Associated Press)


  • UPDATE | A few hours after publication of this story, the NBA players agreed to continue the playoffs, according to reports.  Read the full story

For the cynics questioning the impact the NBA playoff boycott will have on racial injustice, American sports author Howard Bryant has a message for you: When superstar athletes take such a bold move, people listen.

"Is this going to change the world? No, it's not. Is there a symbolic moment here where it contributes to the changing of the world? Absolutely," Bryant said.

"Because people pay attention to these guys. This is a $10 billion industry we're talking about. You'll hear people say things like, 'Well, I couldn't do that at my job.'

"They're not you. These people are incredibly, incredibly visible and have a lot of influence."

Refuse to play

On Wednesday, to protest the police shooting In Wisconsin of Jacob Blake, who is Black, players refused to play in all three playoff games scheduled. It was an unprecedented move, one that will force the league to employ delicate diplomacy to get the season restarted.

WATCH | Milwaukee Bucks players' statement on boycotting Wednesday's game:

Milwaukee Bucks players make joint statement after boycotting Game 5 against Orlando

3 years ago
Duration 1:55
After becoming the first team to boycott games in the NBA bubble, the Milwaukee Bucks players made a joint statement to the media.

Now the future of the rest of the season is unclear. It's not known what games will go ahead on Thursday. Meanwhile, Yahoo Sports reported that members from the L.A. Lakers and L.A. Clippers had voted to end the playoffs in a meeting with other teams.

Players in other professional sports leagues have followed suit. Players in Major League Baseball and the WNBA, staged their own protest, also refusing to play. 

It was suggested that the last time NBA playoff games were postponed was back in 1992 in L.A. during the Rodney King riots. But for an actual player work stoppage, that would be back in the 1961-62 season, when the Boston Celtics boycotted an exhibition game in Kentucky after Black members of the team were refused service at a restaurant.

And this is not the first time that the NBA, in recent years, had to deal with the prospect of players refusing to take the floor over a racial issue. In 2014, players had threatened to stop playing during the playoffs unless the league dealt with then L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had made racist comments. (Sterling was banned for life).

"This is something that they thought that they had avoided six years ago with Donald Sterling.... And [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver had worked with the Clippers and with the league to get those players to play," Bryant said. 

"And you're starting to see action that you've never seen before."

ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith agreed that it's one thing to raise a lot of noise but quite another to refuse to play the game.

WATCH | Black sports historian sees 'tremendous moment' in professional sport:

Black sports historian sees 'tremendous moment' in professional sport

3 years ago
Duration 4:01
The refusal of some professional athletes to play their sport to protest against police violence in Black communities is an important show of support, says Derrick White, co-host of 'The Black Athlete' podcast. White also says the NHL failed to recognize the gravity of the moment.

'Different ballgame'

"This is a different level. This is a different ballgame right here," Smith said in an interview with his network colleague Rachel Nichols.

"I think it's going to explode. You haven't seen anything like this in the modern era."

Retired player Rowan Barrett, general manager of Canada Basketball, the governing body for Canadian basketball. said he could understand how challenging this must have been to the players to intentionally sit out a game.

"What a decision. Especially Game 5 of the playoffs — I'm sure it was a very difficult decision. I'm sure that the players were wrestling with that," he said.

"I think one of their concerns coming back to play — though everybody wanted to play to do their jobs — I think also they were really concerned about what happens if we go into the bubble."

Due to the coronavirus, the players are playing at Florida's Walt Disney World, which has become an isolated so-called bubble.

"I think many of the athletes were on record sharing the concern about not wanting to stop the momentum [in the fight for social justice] and really wanting to get to some concrete solutions around the challenges currently in the U.S."

While many on social media, including former U.S. president Barack Obama, expressed their support for the players' decision, not everyone agreed that professional players refusing to play will lead to any significant change. 

"Then what? The game is delayed a day and … what changes?" tweeted Jim Geraghty, National Review senior political correspondent.

"NBA players & owners share revenue 50-50. They are partners. Strikes only work if capital controls what you want changed. The NBA has zero control over the justice system. Nor should they," tweeted Clay Travis, the morning radio show host for Fox Sports Radio.

'No tangible result'

"There is no logic to this decision not to play. And no tangible result the NBA can provide."

But Bryant said such responses were cynical, that "all the pieces matter" and "everybody has a role to play."

He also rejected those who would say that this is an embarrassment for the NBA.

"I don't think it's an embarrassment. I think it's empowering. I think that this is the seriousness of the moment. It's not a joke," he said. "And if you stand up for these things that you say you care about, I can't think of a better reason not to play."

Yet the actions by the players have put the NBA in the difficult position of getting the players back on the court without seeming too ham-fisted, Bryant said.

"What message do you send if you try be draconian, if you decide to go after them and act like it's Tiananmen Square or something and try to go out and you try to crush a rebellion."

Behind closed doors, NBA senior management is on the phone with the biggest stars, engaging in delicate diplomacy, he said.

"Somebody is on the phone with LeBron James right now ... and all these great players saying, 'Hey, fellows, we still got to go to work, all of our livelihoods are also at stake here.'

"So it'll be very interesting over the next day or two to find out who's doing the diplomacy and what comes out of it."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.